The rise of roundabouts

You may have seen several new roundabouts or “traffic circles” pop up in your area recently.  Traffic engineers have come to prefer circular, unsignalized intersections where all traffic moves counterclockwise around a central “island,” rather than starting or stopping at lights or signs. Why? The primary reason is safety.

Safety of Roundabouts

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, roundabouts have been shown to significantly decrease the number of crashes.  Roundabouts make violent and deadly T-bone and head-on collisions unlikely because all vehicles move in the same direction.  If vehicles do merge into one another, the curvature of the roundabout ensures that they are not converging at a right angle and that they are moving at lower speeds – generally 15-25 mph. Thus, collisions in roundabouts tend to be relatively minor and significantly less lethal.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, roundabouts have proven to reduce the types of crashes where people are seriously hurt or killed by 78-82% when compared to conventional stop-controlled and signalized intersections.

In addition to improving safety, many experts view roundabouts as cost-effective.  From an operational standpoint, traffic circles are more economical than conventional intersections because they do not require municipalities to install, power, and maintain expensive equipment.  Roundabouts can also save time and reduce congestion because they don’t require vehicles to sit idly, waiting for a green light to proceed.  Fewer stops equate to better fuel efficiency for drivers and fewer emissions to pollute the environment.

Although proponents of roundabouts can boast of several benefits, there are some drawbacks to consider.  Roundabouts can be unsafe if drivers are unfamiliar with how they operate.  For example, drivers who encounter roundabouts infrequently may be unaware that they are required to yield to oncoming traffic when entering the circle, causing confusion and unsafe driving maneuvers.  Also, when traffic is congested during peak hours the gap between vehicles may lessen, resulting in an increase in fender benders.  Additionally, the geometry of roundabouts is not conducive for emergency vehicles like ambulances or commercial vehicles like tractor trailers.

Despite these issues, the rise of roundabouts is inevitable. Driver education will need to improve to account for these new traffic patterns.  In order to ensure roundabout safety, drivers and pedestrians should consider exercising the following roundabout protocol:

  • Before entering the roundabout, look left and yield to oncoming traffic already established in the circle.
  • Wait until sufficient space is available before entering the roundabout.
  • To turn right, take the first exit; to continue straight, take the second exit; to turn left, use the third exit of the roundabout.
  • If there are multiple lanes in the roundabout, avoid lane changes or passing other vehicles.
  • Let others around you know of your intentions – use your turn signals.
  • Keep an eye out for pedestrians and bikers.
  • Pedestrians should walk around the outside of the traffic circle instead of crossing through the central island of the roundabout.
  • Bikers should navigate the roundabout in the same fashion as vehicles.

As drivers become more familiar with roundabouts and roundabout safety, the benefits of these new traffic features will increase. Be on the lookout for more roundabouts coming to your local area, and always be careful when dealing with any new or unfamiliar traffic pattern.

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